A Turkey of a Thanksgiving

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Matthew J. Lohr Virginia Agriculture Commissioner

I’m sure I’m not the only ag communicator to write about turkeys at Thanksgiving, but this year I have a unique spin.

Virginia is supplying the tom turkey that will be the National Thanksgiving Turkey of the United States. This is so official that he even has his own seal. You can see photos on Flickr at flickr.com/photos/vdacs/sets/72157631945574460/show/.

This does not mean he will replace the bald eagle as the national bird. It means that prior to Thanksgiving Day, President Barack Obama is expected to pardon him for the inherent turkey traits that normally would have led to his demise at this time of year.

Rather than being eaten for the holiday, he will retire to the exclusive, all-male club of pardoned turkeys on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. I understand that when they live the pampered life of a pardoned turkey, these turkeys often live several years.

Turkeys are very important to us in Virginia, and not just at Thanksgiving. They are our fourth highest ranked agricultural commodity, with annual cash receipts of nearly $314 million in 2011. When you combine turkeys with broilers and eggs, poultry contributes more than a billion dollars a year in cash receipts.

My home county, Rockingham County, boasts large gateways at the north and south ends of Route 11 with larger than life bronze statues of turkeys. For many years, Rockingham County was the No. 1 turkey-producing city or county in the world. Both Rockingham and neighboring Augusta County currently are on the list of the top 10 turkey-producing counties in the United States.

As other governors have done, Gov. Bob McDonnell declared June 2012 as Virginia Turkey Lovers Month to coincide with the national observance. Among the reasons he gave for the proclamation were these:

“The delicious taste, versatility, high quality, nutritional value and cooking ease of turkey make it Virginia’s fourth highest ranking agricultural product with $285 million in cash receipts in 2010.

“Virginia ranks fifth in the United States in turkey production, with 17 million turkeys being raised in the commonwealth in 2010. (2011 figures were not available at the time the proclamation was issued.)

“Many experts credit the settlers of Virginia’s Jamestown with celebrating the first Thanksgiving as their version of England’s ancient Harvest Home Festival; and

“Turkey is a nutrient-rich, low-fat, high-protein food that is naturally low in sodium; a 3-ounce serving of roasted, skinless turkey breast contains 26 grams of protein, 45 milligrams of sodium, 1 gram of fat (no saturated fat) and only 120 calories.

Perhaps in next year’s proclamation we will suggest that the governor add this line: The turkey has more strangely-named parts of its anatomy than almost any other bird or animal:

Caruncle — a red-pink fleshy growth on the head and upper neck of the turkey.

Snood — a long, red, fleshy growth from the base of the beak that hangs down over the beak.

Wattle — a bright red appendage at the neck.

Beard — a black lock of hair found on the chest of the male turkey.

Here are some other amazing facts and tidbits about turkeys. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the U.S. reported 8,284 farms with turkey sales.

Turkeys don’t really have ears like ours, but they have very good hearing.

And here’s one for your next trivia game: Turkeys have 3,500 feathers at maturity.

Each year on Thanksgiving Day alone, Americans consume roughly 700 million pounds of turkey. In 1970, 50 percent of all turkey consumed was during the holidays; now just 29 percent of all turkey consumed is during the holidays, as more turkey is eaten year-round. Thus the reason for June as Turkey Lovers Month.

If you want recipes for the other 364 days of the year, visit www.eatturkey.com and search for turkey recipes. Here are some that got my interest: orange and maple roasted turkey, sausage stuffed acorn squash, Caribbean turkey burgers with honey pineapple chutney, lemon garlic kabobs, apple roasted turkey tenderloin with cider pan sauce and turkey salsa soup.

At another site, I found a recipe for turkey mulligatawny soup with coriander. Since I generally make it a rule not to cook anything I can’t pronounce, I think I’ll forego the soup and try the ultimate T-Day leftovers sandwich. Check out the recipe at www.eatturkey.com/recipe/recipe.cgi/2/12476/.

Two turkeys, the No. 1 choice and a backup, will leave Rockingham County on Nov. 19. The Broadway High School band will play, and no doubt their mascot, the Gobbler, will bid a tearful farewell to his turkey friends. So many dignitaries will be on site it will look like the last weeks of the presidential election campaign all over again.

Before their departure, the turkeys went through an extensive selection process and training regimen. Some of the original flock of 40 birds were chosen as P.R. Turkeys. They traveled to events such as the State Fair of Virginia to represent the flock.

Once they left their farm, they could not return for biosecurity reasons. If by chance one of them picked up a bird disease, they could spread it to the entire flock back home. So instead, they went to petting zoos and other places not involved in the food supply chain.

Their training included weight lifting, aerobics, posture, public speaking and diction. OK, I’m kidding here, but they did have to be acclimated to people. A turkey that is afraid of crowds is not a successful candidate for a P.R. turkey. Neither is one that jumps at the slightest sound or panics at the flash of a camera. So all 40 turkeys became almost pets as they interacted with humans for several months.

The two turkeys that leave Rockingham County on Nov. 19 will be the best of the best from this special flock. In appearance, they will have no peers. In temperament, they will be engaging, curious and comfortable around people of high rank. They will have to pass the security check, and with any luck, will not poop at inappropriate times. (This is the hardest trait to train for.)

As I see it in my admittedly overactive imagination, they will spend the night at a deluxe hotel in Washington, D.C. After a night of pampering, they will travel via special limousine with a heavy police escort (either that or a trained guard dog).

One will remain in the limo while the other struts his turkey self down the red carpet to the president of the United States. One balk, one flinch, one wrongfully aimed peck and he’s out of there and the waiting turkey now takes on the role of THE National Thanksgiving Turkey of the United States.

I confess I have learned a lot about what it takes to make a suitable candidate for the National Turkey. But one thing is not news to me. To produce the best turkeys in the nation, you need a thriving poultry industry, dedicated farmers, efficient marketing channels and superb transportation systems. I am proud to say that Virginia has them all.

Matthew J. Lohr is commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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